So what if the only Scorsese movie Netflix Streaming offers is Last Temptation of Christ? Who cares if their Spielberg collection consists of Amistad, Hook and 1941? What Netflix does have in abundance is garbage. It’s time to surrender and celebrate it. This isn’t so bad it’s good… this is so bad it’s Netflix.
The Next Best Thing (2000)
It’s normally not a good sign when your film comes in second at the box office behind The Whole Nine Yards on opening weekend. Worldwide, The Next Best Thing grossed twenty four and a half million dollars, which almost covered its budget of twenty five million. Considering Madonna’s mostly sad film career, those numbers should be seen an unmitigated success. However, I think it’s telling that Next was up for Outstanding Film at the GLAAD Media Awards but lost to Billy Elliot, a film with practically no gay stuff in it at all. Next is one of the gay-friendliest movies ever put out by a Hollywood studio and yet it failed to win a damn thing at a gay awards show.
Madonna plays Abby, an L.A. yoga instructor, who’s best buddy is Robert (Rupert Everett) a gorgeous, gay, high-end gardener. One night they get really drunk and have sexual intercourse. She gets pregnant and they agree to raise the child as a platonic mom and dad team. Cut to seven years later and Abby and Robert are having a ball raising their cute son. It’s all going smashingly well until Abby falls in love and marries Benjamin Bratt (way prettier than Madonna). A vicious custody battle is set in motion when Abby and the Bratt decide to move to New York and take the boy with them. As a gay man, Robert has the odds stacked against him as he fights desperately to get his son back.
The very best thing you can say about The Next Best Thing is that it’s inoffensive and its heart is in the right place. Sometimes, in my book, that’s good enough for an endorsement. Next is gentle, frothy, sappy, romantic nonsense and that’s why it succeeds as a gay melodrama. The film also earns points for taking on timely issues (it was made at a time when people were still talking about AIDS) and places it all in a fairly believable setting. Next is also one of the most “L.A.” movies ever, with its easy going attitude and its embracing of alternative lifestyles. When Abby tells Robert she’s pregnant with his child, Robert pretends to faint and then just laughs about it, completely cool with this life-changing news. Later on, their son asks Robert if he’s a “fag”- a word he’d heard on the playground. Neither parent gets the least bit upset at the word and it all ends with a calm and positive family talk. I know I must be getting old if scenes like that excite me. Things go so well for all concerned that one begins to wonder when the “drama” part of this mellow-drama will kick in.
Next doesn’t get juicy until the last half hour, where Robert and Abby’s relationship is completely destroyed over the custody battle. Even so, the last scene of the film is refreshingly non-committal. Abby and the Bratt end up winning custody but they agree to stay in L.A. and promise Robert he’ll always be in the child’s life. This open-ended finale has a “things are going to work out” vagueness that actually feels right. I love L.A., my bro-skis!
Let’s go to the So Bad it’s Bullet Points!™
The Night in Question and the Morning After
John Schlesinger, director of Midnight Cowboy, Day of the Locust and Marathon Man, directed The Next Best Thing, which was his last film. Being a gay man himself, perhaps Schlesinger saw in Next the opportunity to make a flamboyant, Douglas Sirk-ian melodrama for the new millennium. He directs this puff piece with as much flair and style as is appropriate. He even uses Batman angles in drab courtroom scenes.
I especially enjoyed Schlesinger’s rendering of the night of conception, when Abby and Robert chug margaritas, dress up in gorgeous old clothes, dance like crazy and then get romantic against their better judgement. It’s done in a classic montage style, with “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” playing and a “the camera’s drunk too!” sense of fun, complete with tipsy dissolves.
I also appreciated that the morning after scene is played for comedy. Abby is not embarrassed and even sort of pleased about the evening, while Robert flutters about frantically, unwilling to believe he could stoop so low as to have sex with a woman. It’s all very screwball and old fashioned and yet couldn’t be more modern in terms of attitude.
MADONNA: Hate Me, Love Me, Me Me.
Four years after she starred in Evita, Madonna still was trying to prove to the world she could act. Most agreed she handled the musical parts of Sondheim’s show well, but as an actor she was sort of a dead-eyed wet noodle. It’s clear Madonna took on way too hefty an acting challenge when she joined the cast of Next. Sure, in the film she gets to flaunt her psychotic and disturbingly perfect diction in everybody’s face; it’s the only thing she excels at. Sometimes, though, she doesn’t embarrass herself. I chose to judge her performance on a line by line basis. She might tank on two or three in a row, but then a perfectly acceptable line reading is always around the corner.
Five minutes into Next Madonna is told she has a “fantastic body.” A minute later her ex-boyfriend tells her, “You’re great. You’re smart. You’re beautiful, a great cook and a great lay.” At minute nine Robert tells her, “You’re the most beautiful woman I know.” Forty five minutes in, Robert reassures her, “You’re not just a mother Abby, you’re a beautiful woman.” In Next, Madonna is such a potent sexual force that even gay guys pop boners around her. Even when in a vicious custody battle, Abby receives nothing but accolades. Towards the end of the film, Robert is sitting with his lawyer (Illeana Douglas) and racking his brains, trying to think of one single character flaw within Abby that could pin her as an unfit mother. He comes up with nothing. None of this helps one bit to humanize Abby, and it also doesn’t help that she’s perpetually bathed in backlighting worthy of Moses. Madonna makes sure to show off her ass and boobs in Next because she needs us to get one thing straight; she’s a sex symbol first and a human being second.
But then, what did I expect? Madonna got into the acting racket to become a glamorous movie star in the traditional sense. You can hear/see it in her old songs and videos- she wants to be old Hollywood royalty, not Greta Gerwig. Madonna will never play an unattractive woman with flaws, just like Bette Midler will never play a woman who doesn’t yell. These are the laws of the universe. Let’s give Ms. Ciccone credit; in Next she acknowledges that she’s getting older- a huge step, perhaps? In the end, we must also commend Madonna for not playing the heroine; Abby’s the closest thing Next has to an antagonist. She makes a few bad life-choices and that’s evil enough to play the villain in this cream-puff of a movie. It’s Everett’s Robert who emerges the hero, willing to do absolutely anything to get his kid back. Plus, in a scene as shocking as the “ear” sequence in Reservoir Dogs, Madonna shops at an actual supermarket.
I felt like I was on mushrooms watching this international pop star billionaire search in vain for an unbruised apple in the produce aisle.
What is My Face Doing?
What is this face supposed to mean? Madonna makes this puss when, at their son’s backyard birthday party, she spots Robert with his new boyfriend. Is she in love with Robert? Is she jealous of Robert’s happiness? Has the kale and couscous cake gone bad?
A still closeted Neil Patrick Harris pops up in Next as David, a very “RENT”-ified gay boy who’s lover has just succumbed to AIDS. Abby and Robert accompany the bitter David to the funeral and all of a sudden the film gets dark.
David and Robert start talking nasty about the deceased boy’s family, who never accepted the boy’s homosexuality when he was alive. When the priest attributes the boy’s death to pneumonia, Robert shoots the holy man a look so nasty it’s genuinely frightening.
David and Robert are blatantly frustrated with Christianity. “All this gothic hocus-pocus… I feel like I’m in The Omen,” snaps Robert, during the eulogy. Ouch! Take that you Christians and your boring burial rituals! The film could have used this kind of attitude all the way through. Soon, David and his rag-tag gang of free spirits are singing “American Pie” as the coffin is lowered, completely disregarding the other mourners. It may be his boyfriend’s funeral, but David is still the outsider. The gang sings as if they are invisible and, in a way, they are.
Then Madonna turns to the camera and yells, “Buy my version of American Pie!” Don McClean’s words ring even truer now than they did eighty years ago! American Pie will make you curious about levees! Did you know that levees are sometimes called dykes?”
Bye Bye, “American Pie” (please, god)
I tell ya what, if someone starts to sing “American Pie” at my funeral, I will explode from the grave and rip their intestines out like they do on the TV. Next is desperate to convince us that McClean’s ode to Buddy Holly is the greatest song in history and thus perfect for any occasion. It pops up on the soundtrack constantly, Robert sings it with his son, the gang sings it obnoxiously at a funeral and lastly, Madonna covers “American Pie” just to make those end credits really zing! So much for Madonna having her finger on the zeitgeist. Her “Pie” is as disappointingly low brow as Metallica’s cover of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.” However, McClean’s opus does fit Next perfectly; it’s well meaning, passionate, it refuses to end and it’s fucking annoying.